Buying new gear for your dorm room is one of the best parts of going back to college. Fresh twin XL sheets, photos of all your friends, ramen noodles in bulk — and new shower shoes. But do you have to wear shoes in your dorm's shower — or at the gym, for that matter? If you're sharing a shower with many other people, yes.
If you go barefoot in a public shower, you could catch fungal or viral infections that cause athlete's foot, fungal nails, and warts, says John Doolan, DPM, a podiatrist at NewYork-Presbyterian and Weill Cornell Medicine. And even if you think your public shower is clean, there is still a chance that you could contract and spread one of these infections.
Athlete's foot is an infection caused by a fungus that grows in warm, damp environments, according to the Mayo Clinic. You'll know when you have it because your feet get really itchy, often between your toes right after you take your shoes and socks off, and your skin can start looking red, rough, or crackly. Sometimes, athlete's foot can travel to your nails and cause a brown or yellow toenail fungus, according to the Mayo Clinic. Usually, athlete's foot is no big deal, and is easy to treat with anti-fungal creams, although it can be very uncomfortable and contagious.
Read that last part again: very uncomfortable and contagious. You can catch a case of it if you just come in contact with surfaces that an infected person has touched, like a bathroom floor, mat, sauna, swimming pool, or locker room. Hypothetically, if someone in your dorm or gym had athlete's foot and didn't use sandals, then a whole bunch of people could get it.
Plantar warts, on the other hand, are actually caused by an HPV infection on the outside of your feet, but keep in mind that this is not the same strain that causes genital warts and cervical cancers, Dr. Doolan says. There are more than 100 strains of HPV, and very few of them cause warts. And the type that does cause plantar warts isn't actually that contagious, the Mayo Clinic reports. But like athlete's foot, the virus thrives in dark, moist environments like a public shower, which is why it can spread there to folks who brazenly splash around sans sandals.
Plantar warts cause a small, grainy growth on the bottom of your foot, according to the Mayo Clinic. If you have a tiny cut on your feet, and then walk barefoot in an infected area, then you could get plantar warts. There are some OTC treatments that tend to work well, but if you have these warts and they aren't responding, or they bleed or change color, you should see a doctor. Dr. Doolan suggests heading to your GP any time you have the above foot symptoms, because warts and athlete's foot are often misdiagnosed or left untreated. Do your feet a solid and get them checked out.
So, yeah: Shower shoes are your first line of defense for preventing these infections in the first place. But according to Dr. Doolan, sandals alone might not be enough protection. "In addition to wearing them, wash and dry your feet with soap and water after removing them," he says. "Dry well with a towel and apply an alcohol-based sanitizer." This might sound very extra, but if you're using a shared shower everyday, in a dorm room or gym, then it might be something to consider.
If you forgot your shoes and need to shower, what's the worst thing that could happen if you shower barefoot? You could get one of these infections. Like some other important health topics that come up in college, it's important to always use protection.